A Greenpeace undercover investigation has exposed how fossil fuel companies can secretly pay academics at leading American universities to write research that sows doubt about climate science and promotes the companies’ commercial interests.
Posing as representatives of oil and coal companies, reporters from Greenpeace UK asked academics from Princeton and Penn State to write papers promoting the benefits of CO2 and the use of coal in developing countries.
The professors agreed to write the reports and said they did not need to disclose the source of the funding.
Citing industry-funded documents – including testimony to state hearings and newspaper articles – Professor Frank Clemente of Penn State said: “In none of these cases is the sponsor identified. All my work is published as an independent scholar.”
Leading climate-sceptic academic, Professor William Happer, agreed to write a report for a Middle Eastern oil company on the benefits of CO2 and to allow the firm to keep the source of the funding secret.
Happer appeared as a star witness in Senate hearings called by Republican Presidential candidate Ted Cruz.
In emails to reporters he also revealed Peabody Energy paid thousands of dollars for him to testify at a separate state hearing, with the money being paid to a climate-sceptic think tank.
The investigation also found:
US coal giant Peabody Energy also paid tens of thousands of dollars to an academic who produced coal-friendly research and provided testimony at state and federal climate hearings, the amount of which was never revealed.
The Donors Trust, an organisation that has been described as the “dark money ATM” of the US conservative movement, confirmed in a taped conversation with an undercover reporter that it could anonymously channel money from a fictional Middle Eastern oil and gas company to US climate sceptic organisations.
Princeton professor William Happer laid out details of an unofficial peer review process run by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a UK climate sceptic think tank, and said he could ask to put an oil-funded report through a similar review process, after admitting that it would struggle to be published in an academic journal.
A recent report by the GWPF that had been through the same unofficial peer review process, was promoted as “thoroughly peer-reviewed” by influential columnist Matt Ridley – a senior figure in the organisation.
The findings echo the case of Willie Soon, who was the subject of an investigation published in the New York Times earlier this year. The investigation revealed that Soon had accepted donations from fossil fuel companies and anonymous donors in return for producing climate-sceptic scientific papers. He described his studies as “deliverables” and failed to declare who paid for the research.
The revelations also follow a series of reports showing fossil fuel companies burying the truth about climate change, while funding flawed research to cast doubt on the scientific consensus.
Academics for Hire
Reporters approached the academics claiming to be representatives of unnamed fossil fuel companies – one, a Middle Eastern oil and gas exploration company, the other a coal mining firm based in Indonesia – looking to commission “independent” research.
The individuals approached have previously been linked to fossil fuel companies or climate sceptic organisations that have received fossil fuel funding.
Professor Frank Clemente, a sociologist from Penn State university, was asked if he could produce a report “to counter damaging research linking coal to premature deaths (in particular the World Health Organization’s figure that 3.7 million people die per year from fossil fuel pollution)”.
He said that this was within his skill set; that he could be quoted using his university job title; and that it would cost around $15,000 for an 8-10 page paper. He also explained that he charged $6,000 for writing a newspaper op-ed.
When asked whether he would need to declare where the money came from, Professor Clemente said: “There is no requirement to declare source funding in the US.”
Clemente is a favourite of the coal industry and particularly Peabody Energy, which regularly uses his research as evidence of the need for an expansion of coal power in developing countries.
In the exchange Clemente disclosed that for another report on “the Global Value of Coal” he was paid $50,000 by Peabody Energy – the sponsorship was mentioned in the small print of the paper, but the amount has not been disclosed until now.
Following the report Clemente produced an op-ed arguing against the coal divestment movement in universities, which was picked up by over 50 newspapers across the US. But as Clemente told undercover reporters: “In none of these cases is the sponsor identified. All my work is published as an independent scholar.”
Professor Clemente failed to respond to requests for comment.
Investigators also approached Professor William Happer of Princeton University, who is chairman of the climate sceptic George Marshall Institute and a former Director of Energy Research at the US Department of Energy under the first President Bush where he “supervised all of DOE’s work on climate change”.
Professor Happer, who is a physicist rather than a climatologist, told Greenpeace reporters that he would be willing to produce research promoting the benefits of carbon dioxide for $250 per hour. He asked that the money be paid to climate sceptic campaign group, the CO2 Coalition, of which he is a board member.
Happer described his work on carbon dioxide as a “labor of love” and said that while other pollutants produced by burning fossil fuels are a problem, in his opinion “More CO2 will benefit the world”, adding “The only way to limit CO2 would be to stop using fossil fuels, which I think would be a profoundly immoral and irrational policy.”
When reporters asked if it would be possible for the fossil fuel client’s role in commissioning the research to remain hidden, in order to give the work more credibility, Happer replied that: “If I write the paper alone, I don’t think there would be any problem stating that ‘the author received no financial compensation for this essay.'”
Happer also disclosed that Peabody Energy paid $8,000 in return for his testimony in a crucial Minnesota state hearing on the impacts of carbon dioxide. This fee was also paid to the CO2 Coalition.
The academics’ willingness to conceal the source of funding contrasts strongly with the ethics of journals such as Science, which states in its submission requirements that research “should be accompanied by clear disclosures from all authors of their affiliations, funding sources, or financial holdings that might raise questions about possible sources of bias”.
Late last month Happer appeared at a climate sceptic summit in Texas. There he defended CO2 production saying: “Our breath is not that different from a power plant.” He went on to say, “If plants could vote, they would vote for coal”.
Hiding the Money Trail
The investigation has also revealed a system by which oil and gas companies can anonymously fund US climate-sceptic scientists and organisations.
When asked to ensure that the commissioning of the report could not be traced back to the Middle East oil and gas company, Professor Happer contacted his fellow CO2 Coalition board member, Bill O’Keefe, explaining: “I am trying get [sic] another mysterious client to donate funds to the CO2 Coalition instead of compensating me for my writing something for them.”
The organisation has a long history of channelling funding to US climate sceptics, including controversial professor Willie Soon, and some of the most influential organisations in the US conservative movement, including Americans for Prosperity, the Heartland Institute and the American Enterprise Institute.
When investigators asked Peter Lipsett of the Donors Trust if the Trust would accept money from an oil and gas company based in the Middle East, he said that, although the Trust would need the cash to come from a US bank account, “we can take it from a foreign body, it’s just we have to be extra cautious with that.”
He added that: “I’ll double check everything and make sure I’m wording things correctly after chatting with our CFO [Chief Financial Officer], but what he’s told me before is that the preference is to have it in US dollars, and the ideal preference is to have it originate from a US source, but the US dollars is the important bit”.
Peter Lipsett is director of growth strategies at the Donors Trust and has worked in a senior position for Charles Koch, and before that Koch Industries for almost a decade. When contacted for on the record comment, Mr Lipsett said:
“We only accept donations in U.S. currency and drawn from U.S. banks. Donors Trust has never accepted secret donations from foreign donors. We have supported over 1,500 organizations representing the arts, medicine and science, public policy, education, religion, and civics. We are no more a “middle man” between donors and their causes than any other community or commercial donor-advised fund sponsoring organization”.
Mr O’Keefe said: “As a matter of personal policy, I do not respond to requests such as yours.”
As well as exposing how fossil fuel companies are able to anonymously commission scientific research, Greenpeace can reveal details of a so-called “peer review” process being operated by the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), a UK climate sceptic think tank.
Sense About Science, a UK charitable trust, describes peer review as the process by which “scientists submit their research findings to a journal, which sends them out to be assessed for competence, significance and originality, by independent qualified experts who are researching and publishing work in the same field (peers).” The process usually involves varying degrees of anonymity.
Professor Happer, who sits on the GWPF’s Academic Advisory Council, was asked by undercover reporters if he could put the industry funded report through the same peer review process as previous GWPF reports they claimed to have been “thoroughly peer reviewed”. Happer explained that this process had consisted of members of the Advisory Council and other selected scientists reviewing the work, rather than presenting it to an academic journal.
He added: “I would be glad to ask for a similar review for the first drafts of anything I write for your client. Unless we decide to submit the piece to a regular journal, with all the complications of delay, possibly quixotic editors and reviewers that is the best we can do, and I think it would be fine to call it a peer review.”
GWPF’s “peer review” process was used for a recent GWPF report on the benefits of carbon dioxide. According to Dr Indur Goklany, the author of the report, he was initially encouraged to write it by the journalist Matt Ridley, who is also a GWPF academic advisor. That report was then promoted by Ridley, who claimed in his Times column that the paper had been “thoroughly peer reviewed”.
Sense About Science, which lists Ridley as a member of its Advisory Council, has warned against such review processes, saying: “sometimes organisations or individuals claim to have put their studies through peer review when, on inspection, they have only shown it to some colleagues. Such claims are usually made in the context of a campaign directed at the public or policy makers, as a way of trying to give scientific credibility to certain claims in the hope that a non-scientific audience will not know the difference.”
The organisation also says that: “reporters or advocates citing these sources as peer reviewed would show themselves to be biased or uninformed”.
Professor Happer claimed that the review of the paper was “more rigorous than the peer review for most journals”. But he also told undercover reporters that he believed most members of the Academic Advisory Council had been too busy to comment on the paper:
“I know that the entire scientific advisory board of the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) was asked to submit comments on the first draft. I am also sure that most were too busy to respond,” he said.
Professor Happer also noted that submitting a report on the benefits of carbon dioxide to a peer-reviewed scientific journal would be problematic.
“That might greatly delay publication and might require such major changes in response to referees and the journal editor that the article would no longer make the case that CO2 is a benefit, not a pollutant, as strongly as I would like, and presumably as strongly [as] your client would also like,” he said.
When asked about the review process behind Dr Goklany’s report, GWPF explained that the report had gone for review to other chosen scientists beyond just those in their Advisory Council and that: “the quality of Dr Goklany’s report is self-evident to any open-minded reader.”
The investigation raises further questions for coal giant Peabody Energy, which earlier this year was investigated by New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman over accusations that they violated New York laws prohibiting false and misleading conduct, in relation to misleading statements on the risks it could face from tightening climate change laws. Peabody have now agreed to change the way it reports the risks posed to investors by climate change.
Professors Clemente and Happer were both employed by Peabody to provide testimony favourable to the company in state and governmental hearings. The company paid $8,000 for Professor Happer to make the case on the social costs of carbon.
Other prominent climate sceptics who provided testimony in the Minnesota hearing on behalf of Peabody included: Roy Spencer who told Greenpeace he was paid $4,000 by Peabody; Richard Tol who said he was not paid and Richard Lindzen and Robert Mendelsohn who failed to reply to questions. Tol, Lindzen and Mendelsohn are all members of the GWPF Academic Advisory Council.
Both Penn State and Princeton University declined to comment.
The GWPF said: “Professor Happer made his scientific views clear from the outset, including the need to address pollution problems arising from fossil fuel consumption. Any insinuation against his integrity as a scientist is outrageous and is clearly refuted by the correspondence.
“Nor did Professor Happer offer to put a report “commissioned by a fossil fuel company” through the GWPF peer review process. This is a sheer fabrication by Greenpeace.
“The back-handed attempt by Greenpeace to manufacture a scandal around Dr Goklany’s report, and to smear Professor Happer’s reputation, only points to the need for the Global Warming Policy Foundation to redouble its efforts to bring balanced, rigorous and apolitical research on climate and energy policy issues to the public’s attention, as counter to the misleading noise and activist rhetoric from groups like Greenpeace.”
Journalist and GWPF Academic Advisor, Matt Ridley, did not respond to requests for comment.